October 8, 2017 – 18 Pentecost A, Proper 22
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80:7-14; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46
The Rev. Jamie Osborne
Who are you? If someone were to ask you that question, how would you respond?
It’s one of the most important questions a person can ask, right up there with “Who is God?” And these questions are so important, because the answers we give end up shaping the rest of our lives.
Who are you?
There’s a lot you could say. You could talk about your family of origin and where you were born. You could talk about significant relationships in your life. Places you’ve been. Things you like and don’t like. Your accomplishments and your failures.
And all of these things are a valid part of who we are as human beings. God has placed us in time, and as we move through it we are formed by a history that has helped make us who we are. But there is something more deeply true about ourselves than even our personal and collective histories, It’s an answer to the question of who we are and it forms the bedrock of our truest identity.
Jacob and Esau were brothers a long time ago and they’re part of our spiritual family tree. You’ll remember the story of how Jacob stole Esau’s blessing from their father Isaac. Blessings were a big deal in those days. And as a patriarch started approaching death, they’d gather their children and pass this blessing on to those they’d leave behind when they died. It was a spiritual action designating someone’s place and identity and would mark out their inheritance and future. The only problem was that Esau was going to receive the blessing because he was the eldest son. But Jacob and his mother Rebekah were crafty and deceived Isaac who was old, blind, and near death. The story culminates in a very dramatic scene where Jacob puts on Esau’s clothes to trick his father in to blessing him.
Who are you?
Sometimes our best answer to that question is to be like Jacob and try to trick our heavenly Father into blessing us with his love.
It’s hard to answer the question of who we are when we’ve got Esau’s clothes on. And it’s so hard to just be ourselves because Esau’s clothes are stuffy, and don’t fit right, and are scratchy on our skin.
And we do this play-acting when our true identity as the beloved children of God isn’t enough. We don’t believe that we are worthy of love and so we try to earn it. We constantly compare ourselves to others. We are critical of our selves. Life becomes one long hustle to convince ourselves and everyone else, even God, that we are worthy of love. And it’s so hard to accept the undeserved love and kindess of God when we are convinced that if we were really known for who we are, we wouldn’t be loved by others or by God.
Some of you have heard my spiritual journey when I had the opportunity to share it several weeks ago. I grew up terrified of God, that I could never measure up, and I lived with this oppressive inner voice that told me deep down God didn’t love me because I wasn’t worthy of God’s love. And then I had this grace awakening in college. I journaled a lot. I dove into the life of a local Christian community. And I read. I read everything I could find about God’s love and undeserved kindness. And I read something by the author Brennan Manning that helped change my life and helped the process of healing I was on.
This is what he wrote: “Define yourself radically as one beloved by God. This is the true self. Every other identity is illusion.”
This is the best answer I have to the question of who I am. And it’s the best answer I have to the question of who you are. More than all of your accomplishments, your failures, where you might fall in the social order of things, your whole history, what is most true about you is that you are loved by God.
This is the answer to the question of our true identity and this is what Paul so joyously tells us about today in his letter to the Philippians.
Here we have one of the most striking personal accounts of spiritual transformation that has ever been recorded. For Paul, every possible answer to the question about who he is fades in comparison to the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In Paul’s honor-based culture, he was at the top. He had the best pedigree. He was circumcised and a full member of God’s chosen people Israel. On top of that he was from the tribe of Benjamin which was considered to be one of the two tribes of Israel who remained faithful to God’s covenant. He was a Hebrew of Hebrews meaning his parents were both Jewish, there was no Gentile mixing in him. As a Pharisee he practiced a strict observance of God’s law, and his devotion was seen in the way he persecuted the church.
Paul was the elite of the elite. The cream of the crop. But that no longer defined who Paul was. He considers that all of the answers he could give about his identity are rubbish in comparison with knowing Jesus Christ and being known by him. Following Torah, his previous status, none of these matter except for growing in relationship with Christ by faith through the Holy Spirit.
His whole life is oriented towards his truest identity as one loved by God in Christ. Everything else has faded away.
Not only did Paul let go of his prestige and social standing as an elite Torah-abiding Jewish man, he also refused to define himself by his sinful past. Paul, the former persecutor of the church, the one who held the coats of those who killed the first Christian martyr, Stephen, finds all of his history, the good and the bad, to be permeated with a deeper truth – Jesus Christ loves him and gave himself up for him.
There is a long tradition in the church of clothing people in white when they are baptized. The white garments signify that the person being baptized has left the old life behind and is putting on the risen life of Jesus, what Paul would call putting on Christ. When we are baptized, what the Father said of Jesus becomes true of us: “This is my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
And it’s what’s true about you and me. We are God’s beloved children. This is who we are.
So let whatever you wrap up your identity in fall away if it isn’t woven from the threads of God’s lovingkindness in Christ. Leave Esau’s clothes behind and put on Christ. Because in him, you are God’s beloved child in whom God is well pleased.